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civil forfeiture

Over the summer we discussed civil forfeiture, its history and how it violated people’s 5th Amendment rights, or at least the latter part: “…nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

The practice of civil forfeiture, otherwise known as asset forfeiture, has been under scrutiny since its conception in the 1980’s. Such laws, on both the federal and state level, basically allow agents of the law to take people’s assets before they are proven to be guilty. What’s more, getting back one’s property after they have proved their innocence in criminal court is no walk in the park, and innocent victims need to prove in civil court that their money or property were not acquired illegally.

It is not uncommon for innocent people to give up on getting their property back, simply because they cannot afford to fight for it in civil court. Despite the ever-apparent unconstitutional nature of asset forfeiture laws, changing them is not an easy task; keeping in mind that police departments and federal agencies reap the rewards of their illegally gained bounty.

Seized assets are pooled into a fund, and then paid back out to law enforcement agencies across the country proportionately. Over the last 5-years, nearly $14.2 billion went into the fund, with California contributing $854.5 million to the pot, The Orange County Register reports. During that same time period, California was given back $410.9 million, the counties seeing the most return included:

  • Los Angeles
  • Orange
  • San Bernardino

It would seem that the times are changing, with California Senate Bill 443 going into effect on January 1, 2017. At which time, assets valued at less than $40,000 can only be seized after a criminal conviction, according to the article. Additionally, local agencies can no longer join forces partnering with federal agencies in order to skirt state laws.

California attempted to get a handle on forfeiture laws in 1994, passing legislation requiring a criminal conviction before police can seize assets worth less than $25,000, and putting a ceiling on what can be taken being no more than 65 percent of the total, the article reports. Police departments figured a way around the law by seizing assets under federal law, which allowed them to keep 80 percent of the proceeds without a criminal conviction.

“I don’t want to disparage law enforcement because these laws are being used properly most of the time,” Issa [U.S. Congressman Darrell Issa, R-CA] said in a statement. “The problem is, ‘most of the time’ isn’t good enough when it’s your civil rights.” 

Ronald G. Brower is a criminal defense attorney in Orange County, California. If you are facing criminal charges and have been the victim of civil forfeiture laws, please contact Attorney Brower online or by telephone at 714-997-4400.

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